Most land management professionals and many recreation professionals know what a social trail is, but in case you’re reading this and don’t have that sort of background social trails (less politely known as herd trails) are trails that develop between points that aren’t part of the official plan of a park, refuge, forest or other space that develop from people going off trail. They are often essentially shortcuts that people use over time, but because they are informal trails they do not have any work done on them. Because they simply come into existence they tend to have negative impacts on the surrounding environment, causing more erosion, cutting across areas at risk, and damaging plant and animal habitats.
While land managers and recreation professionals primarily think of social trails in park or forest settings, especially in back country, they also exist and impact places like college campuses. A few weeks ago, I was visiting UMASS Amherst and had gone up to the 23rd floor of the W.E.B. Du Bois library which is promoted as having the best view of the campus, and it certainly does with views all up and down the valley and campus. It also gives an impressive view of the social trails that have developed in the central part of campus. Now, UMASS has a lot of paved trails. I mean A LOT of paved trails around central campus. In fact, I suspect that if I had access to the UMASS plans and records I’d find that many of these paved trails were once social trails, because many of them are short little cut offs where social trails naturally develop.
Looking south from DuBois we can see three distinct sets of social trails. From left to right there are trails that cross between the main trail and the bridge over the south end of the pond. Note that beside the large bare tree there’s been so much foot traffic there’s a no snow left. Secondly there are two trails that come around the corners of the Herter Hall annex at very exact angles. There is a third set of social trails that pass through the tree filled area to the upper right of the chapel.
Looking northwards we see the social trail that caught my attention in the first place. Look at the trail that goes from the bottom left up and to the right. As you can see the paved portion of it ends at the edge of the grass, where most users turn right and head downhill to the entrance of the Campus Center. A significant number however continue towards Goessmann Hall. There is a clear tradition of this throughout the year, as the trail is clearly visible on Google Earth. This social trail acts like most social trails, in that it expands and contracts with how muddy the center is. I took the time to watch people cross it both from the library window and on the ground, and people worked their way towards the less muddy edges of the social trail, as is well established in the literature, so this evidence suggests that social trails in a campus setting act in the same way as in the forest.
Interestingly, this social trail does not appear in aerial images of the campus before 2014. In other words, this social trail and its damage to the campus has occurred in the past two years or so. It does not appear until the new paved path and adjacent bike stands were added. So, attempts to improve cycling and reduce auto use on campus has had the unfortunate side effect of encouraging a social trail that causes erosion. The campus does seem to be aware of the issue, because it has put up a chain that is intended to place a social barrier around the area (at barely knee height it does nothing to block people).
In conclusion, it seems that social trails operate in much the same way in a campus setting as they do in the forest setting. Universities that are concerned with the ecological impact of this need to take other, formal changes in the campus design effects on traffic flow into consideration.